Letter To a Lost Boy
I picked you up from school today as usual. You looked pretty sharp with your new jacket but I knew enough not to call attention to your appearance. I asked the standard dumb question, How was school today, big guy? You gave the safe answer. “Good.” I knew better. There were two “f’s” on your latest progress report but I didn’t want to go there at the moment.
I’ve been thinking about you a lot lately as I have been reading about the Lost Boys of Sudan. The term refers to the 27,000 boys who were displaced or orphaned during the Sudanese Civil War. You have something in common with them, you know. Oh, you were not forced to kill and pillage but when you were forcibly removed from your home because your parents would not or could not take care of you; you became, in the words of author Jennifer Toth, one of “the orphans of the living.” Social service bureaucrats use an uglier term, “wards of the state.”
I think of you as a first world equivalent of a lost boy. When you suffered abuse and neglect by the very people who were supposed to be taking care of you, and were taken from your home and parents, you became an alien in your own land. Maybe the hardest thing was a sense that your life was spinning out of control, that your childhood years were being snatched from you before you were ready.
Losing control over your life is pretty traumatic stuff yet it happens regularly to the 500,000 kids in the foster care system in this country. Other disheartening things happen, too, when you become a foster child. Society labels you as different, a foster kid. The term is a stigma, a kind of virtual red letter that is stamped on you and sets you apart from kids who have parents at home. You’re associated with the childcare workers who pull up in the van to take you to school or doctor’s appointments or to visits with your social workers. You’ve done nothing wrong but sometimes it feels like you’re being treated that way.
Too often, I feel that our foster care system does a reasonably good job of reporting cases of child abuse or neglect, and removing kids from danger. We are even pretty good about keeping kids in foster care adequately fed and clothed. But we’re not very good at all about figuring out what to do with the kids once they are in the system. How else do we explain the fact that less than half of foster children even graduate from high school and former foster kids are more than three times more likely to become homeless? Why is it that nearly 70% of prison inmates have come from the ranks of the foster care system?
Matt, I don’t want you to become one of those statistics. You need to know that there are many good people out there working to improve the foster care system. In retrospect, I’m glad that you landed on our doorstep rather than find yourself playing a kind of foster home placement roulette like so many of your peers. You probably know that it’s not unusual for foster kids to have as many as eight or nine placements before they “graduate” the system. At the Children’s Village you can stay with us until you are 18 and have your brother and sister right with you the whole time. We’ll give you support after 18, too and help you complete your education and get a decent job.
But, you know something? You are the only one who can make lemonade from the lemons that have been served you. Did you realize that many thousands of those 27,000 lost boys from Sudan have turned their lives around? As I write this there are lost boys who are going to college in this country, boys who have risen above the abuse and trauma they suffered and are succeeding in their lives.
You see there were people who stepped up and gave them a hand. Caring adults and mentors are important but never forget that the boys themselves had to make it happen. Same with you. Your life is in your hands and is being affected by every decision you make. You have been given a lousy hand of cards but savvy card players know how to do their best with the hand they have been dealt. When the kids at school try to pressure you to take drugs or persuade you that good grades are not cool, that’s so much bull shit and you know it. Don’t buy in. Don’t allow yourself to remain a lost boy, a victim of circumstances. You can succeed in life because you’re smart and have people here at the Village who stand behind you.
Matt, don’t hesitate to reach out for help. All of us at the Village are pulling for you. Adults can be thickheaded at times but there are a surprising number of people who are willing and able to help kids like you. The truth is that adults were kids once, too. Even this old grandpa was once a lonely, kind of lost 13 year old like you. The decades that separate our ages do not make us different species. I was you and some day, you will be me. Uh, oh. Maybe that’s too scary.
Anyway, please, please hang in there, Matt. You are only a lost boy if you think you are. I love you.